God-fearing atheists

thankgodatheistA few days ago, Terry looked at a few of the initial stories that came out of the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life megastudy. In the comments, a few of you noted one particularly odd statistic from the survey. Here’s how Ed Stoddard of Reuters put it on the news service’s blog:

There seems to be some confusion among self-described U.S. atheists, at least according to the second part of the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life’s monumental “U.S. Religious Landscape Survey” that was issued today.

It found that 92 percent of Americans believe in God or a universal spirit, with 71 percent of those surveyed saying they were “absolutely certain” on this score.

Curiously, more than one fifth — 21 percent — of those who counted themselves as atheists said they believed in God while eight percent expressed absolute certainty about this state of affairs.

One thing does seem absolutely certain: at least a few U.S. atheists must be confused.

My “Dictionary of Beliefs and Religions” (Wordsworth Reference Series, 1992) begins its definition of the word “atheism” in the following manner: “The denial of the existence of God or gods.”

Indeed, the very definition of the term atheist seems to preclude a yes answer to the question of belief in God or a universal spirit. Whenever I read stories about surveys, I’ve found that going to the original source documents helps. But not in this case. Here’s how the surveyors asked the question:

Question: Do you believe in God or a universal spirit? [IF YES, ASK:] How certain are you about this belief? Are you absolutely certain, fairly certain, not too certain, or not at all certain?

For atheists, eight percent were absolutely certain, seven were fairly certain and 6 weren’t terribly certain. Fifty-five percent of agnostics, who by definition claim ignorance about the existence of God, believe in God. Seventeen percent are absolutely certain, 23 percent fairly certain and 15 percent are less certain.

While atheists and agnostics gave very low marks to the importance of religion and whether they went to church frequently, when asked whether they pray, 21 percent of atheists and 56 percent of agnostics said they did. In fact, a small percentage of atheists said that they received definite answers to prayer at least once a week.

Steve Waldman at Beliefnet has a theory about the numbers:

The Spirituality of Atheists – 21% of Atheists believe in god. What this means is that Atheism has become a cultural designation, rather than a theological statement. Some are likely declaring themselves atheists as a statement of hostility to organized religion, rather than to God. This might help explain polls showing rising numbers of Atheists.

That may very well be, although there is no way to know that for certain from the data. Particularly considering respondents had the option of saying they weren’t affiliated with any organized religion. But even if it were certain, what would that say about the rest of the numbers? It doesn’t really inspire confidence, for me at least, in the survey’s methodology, accuracy or utility.

Certainly a survey so wide — 35,000 random Americans — is by necessity very shallow in it’s theological depth. Particularly when so many of the questions were political instead of religious in nature. In fact, the first 20-plus questions did not discuss religion at all.

Steve Waldman, this time writing for the Wall Street Journal, analyzed another part of the survey:

–On the big culture-war issues, Catholics seem only marginally influenced by the Church’s positions. While 50% of the population as a whole say homosexuality should be accepted, 58% of Catholics say it should be. A narrow majority (48%-45%) of Catholics believe abortion should be legal in most or all cases.

Part of the explanation: while most Catholics say they have strong views about right and wrong, a paltry 22% say they get their views about morality primarily from religion while 57% say it comes from “practical experience and common sense” — and only 9% of Catholics say religion is the major determinant of their political views.

That’s also some great analysis, as one might expect from Waldman. But the survey again has limitations. For one thing, these numbers combine the views of Catholics who go to mass weekly or daily with Catholics who haven’t been to mass in decades. If there are cultural, non-theological atheists, there are certainly cultural, non-theological Catholics. So before journalists extract dramatic conclusions about the results, I hope they understand the limits of the data.

In the comments to Terry’s post, reader Ron wrote:

I am struck by how hopelessly inadequate the poll’s questions about exclusive truth claims are to capturing the complexity of traditional Christian teaching.

Similarly, I found the question that resulted in Waldman’s second paragraph just lacking in general. It asked “When it comes to questions of right and wrong, which of the following do you look to most for guidance?” The choices were:

Religious teachings and beliefs; philosophy and reason; practical experience and common sense or scientific information.

It’s not just that I would have liked to answer “yes.” It’s the entire premise I find troubling. In my confession of faith (Lutheran), we’re taught that all of these things are gifts from God and that we are to use all of these things to order our daily affairs. Our religious teachings and beliefs come from both revealed and observed truth. They work together.

Or take this aspect of the study as summarized by Jacqueline Salmon of the Washington Post:

The poll, by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, found that nearly three-fourths of Americans believe in heaven as a place where people who have led good lives will be eternally rewarded. And almost 60 percent believe in hell, where people who have led bad lives and die without repenting are eternally punished, the poll found.

Look at the question that was asked:

Do you think there is a heaven, where people who have led good lives are eternally rewarded?

I honestly have no idea how would I answer that question. The “heaven” in the question in no way resembles Lutheran teaching about heaven. We don’t believe good works gain people salvation (see: the Doctrine of Justification). It’s a minor point, but one worthy of considering as reporters head off to write big think pieces about what these numbers mean.

Reader Chris Bolinger wrote:

I fear that, with MSM articles on the the latest Pew Forum survey and report, we have the perfect storm of:
* An overreaching survey that tries to cover too much ground and includes many questions that are poorly constructed
* A summary of the resulting 276-page report that tries to boil down results that, frankly, are all over the map
* MSM reporters who are obsessed with politics, know little (and care less) about how surveys are conducted or what flaws may exist in this one, and are itching to call characterize the survey results as “proof” of what they have been reporting for the past few years

These Pew surveys are wonderful and highly addictive for religion reporters. But reporters should be careful about the conclusions they draw from the data given the limitations of the survey.

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  • Walter from Puget Sound

    I teach English at a community college. All this stuff tends to make “perfect” sense to me because it is what I have to deal with on a regular basis.

    Of course, I refer not to the content but to the contradiction. People today tend to hyperlink from one page to the next. Thus, sequential thinking is out of fashion for many of the students who stumble into my classes and suspect they have found a backdoor to Hell when I ask them to exercise a bit of critical thinking about the materials they read and write.

    I believe it was Theodore Dalrymple (In Praise of Prejudice) who noted that it’s not the content which is important these days – the value comes in having a viewpoint. As long as one has a viewpoint, it does not need to be consistently formulated and applied as long as it exists in some manner. He notes that we don’t use the term “pupil” any more, for that implies a “master” exists who has a higher status. We use “students” to refer to those people in the classroom. Paulo Freire’s view of teacher as student and student as teacher is quite popular – we are all equals in the classroom. I would guess this must extend to a universe with God as my brother/sister, my son/daughter, and my father/mother in some kind of egalitarian relationship that puts us on a first name basis.

    Unfortunately, these students pass; if they can use good grammar, even for questionable ideas, they meet the minimums. I have often wondered what happened to them. Now I suspect they are doing polls and/or reporting about them.

    Just as Noah should have killed those mosquitoes when only two were on the Ark, maybe I should have failed those pupils when they were in my classes! (Or perhaps these are the ones who failed!)

  • Stephen A.

    In fact, a small percentage of atheists said that they received definite answers to prayer at least once a week.

    There are endless possibilities (all off topic) that this opens up for discussion.

    As for the entire “athiests who believe in God” phenomenon, I suppose they could be “athiests” in the same sense that ancient Romans were said to call early Christians “athiests” beacause they had the nerve not to believe in the ancient, traditional Roman Pantheon of gods.

    The entire athiests believing in God issue brought to mind an episode of the West Wing, in which a character (Josh Lyman) said that “68 percent think we give too much in foreign aid, and 59 percent think it should be cut.” That means, he says, that “nine percent think it’s too high and shouldn’t be cut! Nine percent of respondents couldn’t get their arms around the question. There should be another box you can check for I have utterly no idea what you’re talking about; please, God, don’t ask for my input.”

    How appropriate for this survey, as well!

  • Kamal

    Do you think there is a heaven, where people who have led good lives are eternally rewarded?

    I don’t know if it’s really relevant, but this question suddenly reminded me of an interview with NT Wright by Time in which he claims (points out?) that the Bible doesn’t teach that Christians are eternally rewarded in heaven.


  • FW Ken

    The second link on Waldman leads to BeliefNet, not the WSJ, so I am going to base this comment on the extract you posted about Catholics and the hot button issues. I read the report last night.

    On the big culture-war issues, Catholics seem only marginally influenced by the Church’s positions.

    This is simply dishonest. As noted, it conflated numbers from practicing and lapsed Catholic; what makes it worse is that the numbers were broken out in the study. There is a positive correlation between Mass attendance and the degree to which the Church’s teaching influences one’s opinions.

    To repeat myself, this is a study of American society, with a focus on religion. It’s not a valid picture of American religion, for all the reasons noted on these threads. Leading to my question as to what reporters think they are reporting?

  • Julia

    practicing and lapsed Catholic

    If a Lutheran (or other Protestant) no longer goes to church, I think he/she is no longer considered a Lutheran, although they might be termed an ex-Lutheran. As long as a person claims to be “raised Catholic”, even though he or she dropped it upon becoming adult, they are also included as Catholics.

    After observing this for many years, it seems that the media, and many others, treat Catholics like a nationality you are born into, kind of like Jews – who are described as either practicing or secular, but still Jews. There must be some conscious or unconscious basis for this, but I can’t figure it out.

    Are Catholics considered to be spiritually Italian? Are we seen as having a spiritual ethnicity that is not volitional and therefore unerasable?

  • FW Ken


    Fr. Andrew Greeley has made the point (I think in The Catholic Imagination ) that Catholics who effectively leave the Church are quite likely to continue to call themselves Catholic unless they actually join another religious organization. Hence this one probably can’t be blame on reporters or pollsters.

    Given that Catholic’s are famous for deathbed confessions and conversions (properly reversions, I suppose), that’s probably a realistic attitude.

  • http://blog.kennypearce.net Kenny

    If someone claims to be an atheist, and then answers yes to the question “Do you believe in God or a universal spirit?”, I would assume that that person does NOT believe in God, but DOES believe in something he or she calls a “universal spirit.” Something like a pantheistic deity, or ‘Nature’ or the Heraclitean logos. Furthermore, I’m not the least bit surprised that a fair number of Americans have this sort of belief, and a few of them are quite confident about it. Where’s the contradiction?

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  • http://www.misterdavid.typepad.com David (in Edinburgh)


    In addition to what FW Ken wrote, I would suggest that the fact that the rite of baptism (rather than weekly attendance of Mass) is usually considered the primary identifier of who is or isn’t ‘a Catholic’ might have something to do with it. I have known many non-believers who happily regard themselves as Catholics, due to being baptised as such (usually as infants).

    Then again, equivalent emphasis on baptism occurs in many other churches, without the resulting cultural cohesion of the Catholic community. So maybe it is just about being Italian/Irish/not Protestant …

  • Mark BEnson

    It seems to me, given my sense that today, people use words without caring much about what they mean in a dictionary definition (but mainly what they mean to themselves), that these kinds of polls and the “information” we suppose they provide, are mostly useless, especially for drawing conclusions that are based on dictionary definitions. Maybe, if the pollsters began by asking for definitions from their subjects, it would approach being meaningful to someone else. But, when “atheists” are saying they pray, one needs to know what they mean when they call themselves “atheist”.

  • Margaret

    Thanks for posting this. This describes my teen-age daughter’s outlook pretty well. Actually the t-shirt message is one she could wear with pride. I can’t bring myself to show it to her, because I’m praying too hard that she’ll exercise her spiritual side with the way, the truth and the life!

  • http://ethesis.blogspot.com/ Stephen M (Ethesis)

    Just FYI, it is possible to be an atheist and a member of a twelve step group that relies on God.

    Lots written on the subject, which I found interesting.

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